It’s hard to make a great war movie. Most of them fall into melodramatic clichés as they try to capture the suffering of men on the battlefield- a doomed proposition to begin with. How can a 2 hour movie ever hope to compare with that kind of reality? The smart ones take alternate routes- like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, which decides to one-up the absurdity of war by creating an even more absurd camp of American soldiers basically protesting the war by not taking it seriously.
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame sees M*A*S*H and raises it… tenfold. It, too, is satirical and funny at times, but, unlike the American vantage point, it doesn’t have the luxury of staying detached. The blood is all-too-real, and the suffering and torture that director Srdjan Dragojevic displays is all-too-personal. The ethnic cleansing and neighbor-against-neighbor insanity that erupted out of the ashes of Yugoslavia is enough to drive anyone mad, and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is probably the greatest work of cinema ever to erupt out of this kind of madness.
That’s a bold statement, but you’re welcome to find the film’s equal. Kubrick’s war films are formalist masterpieces, but, like M*A*S*H, they’re outsider films- made my soft Americans who have the benefit of intellectualizing war. This doesn’t make Kubrick’s- or anyone’s- films less great, but it does create a glass ceiling they just can’t shatter by design. What makes Dragojevic so brilliant is that he doesn’t make the opposite mistake- of being too close to the source material that he loses artistic focus. Hell, no- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is damn focused; save for an occasionally long scene that could have used a little trimming, every line of dialogue or new plot point is clearly serving a greater creative cause.
That plot weaves a basic standoff scenario- a group of Serbian soldiers trapped in a tunnel, surrounded by Bosnians, hoping to escape- with flashbacks that provide all the context and twisted humor one needs to understand their predicament. To the question why must we fight each other? the only sane answer is a sneer- the human animal is such a confused mess of drives and emotions, that given its technological power, there’s no other option. Laughter, violence and death are our operating system.
Fellini’s surrealism and Beckett’s existential absurdism are the pillars on which this film is built, and the result is mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about art. Though you will laugh throughout (though perhaps on the inside) there’s nothing light about Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. It’s a rough, tough, grueling and sharp-toothed experience… a bite in the ass that most modern people sorely need.
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